When the second phase of Gov. Brad Little’s plan to reopen Idaho businesses went into effect Saturday, allowing restaurants and gyms to open their doors to the public, so did another development: a relaxing of social distancing guidelines for out-of-state visitors.
Under a version of Idaho’s stay-at-home order issued in mid-April, all visitors coming into the state were asked to self-quarantine for 14 days after entering. The first phase of the governor’s Rebound Idaho plan, which kicked off May 1, included the same recommendation.
Last week, Little announced a change to that guidance: Rather than continue to ask all out-of-state visitors to self-quarantine for two weeks, only visitors from “an area outside Idaho with substantial community spread or case rates higher than Idaho” would be urged to self-quarantine in the second stage of his reopening plan.
“Folks looking to come to Idaho from places with no community spread or low or no cases are now able to freely enter Idaho,” Little said in a press conference Thursday. “This step will be able to help Idaho’s tourism industry.”
In the Wood River Valley, a region with a heavy economic reliance on tourism—and, after an outbreak in March and April, the highest rate of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state—public officials had mixed reactions to the news.
“I think it would be better if it was a requirement of everyone,” Blaine County Commissioner Angenie McCleary said. “But irrespective of that, if you’re coming from out of state, another county or if you live here, I think the most important thing is that we’re all adhering to the social distancing and exceptionally good hygiene.”
Ketchum Mayor Neil Bradshaw said he sees the change to the order as “very sensible.”
“If someone’s living in the middle of nowhere Montana and they’re coming here, I have no issue with them not self-quarantining,” Bradshaw said. “If they’re coming from New York City, I want them to self-quarantine. We are trusting people to do the right thing, which was the case anyway.”
Idaho as a whole, along with neighboring states in the Intermountain West, has had relatively low rates of confirmed COVID-19 cases when compared to other parts of the country, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Our state has low case rates, so [the self-quarantine] requirement covers most states,” County Commissioner Dick Fosbury said. “It makes me nervous, but in Blaine County we understand the importance of messaging in our community and hopefully setting examples in promoting social separation and good hygiene.”
Visitors coming from out of state should look to a map of COVID-19 rates in out-of-state counties, which is attached to the online version of the Stay Healthy Order on the Rebound Idaho website, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office told the Idaho Mountain Express. If the infection rate in your home county is higher than the statewide infection rate in Idaho, you should self-quarantine after coming into the state.
One of the challenges of this particular aspect of the order, as Commissioner Jacob Greenberg put it: “There’s no way to enforce it.” The governor’s latest Stay Healthy Order doesn’t legally require anybody to self-quarantine after entering the state; the order merely “strongly encourages” visitors from areas with community spread to do so. And even if the self-quarantine were legally required, Greenberg pointed out, it would likely be difficult, if not impossible, to keep track of those quarantining.
“It all comes down to personal behavior since we have minimal enforcement,” Fosbury said.
With the typically busy summer season approaching in the Wood River Valley, the lifting of the 14-day quarantine for all visitors came as welcome news to nonprofit tourism organization Visit Sun Valley. Most hotels and lodging properties in the area plan to open in time for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, Marketing Director Ray Gadd said, as local businesses prepare for what would in a normal year be the transition from slack to the summer season.
Visit Sun Valley will begin to target in-state travelers this week ahead of the hotel openings, Gadd said, and plans to reach out to out-of-state markets within driving distance in early June.
“When it comes to the timing of the quarantine lift, this is less about the fact that Idaho is open for business and more about how comfortable and prepared both businesses are to invite people back as well as how confident and willing visitors are in taking a trip to Idaho,” Gadd said. “At the end of the day, we remain cautiously optimistic.”
In Ketchum, Bradshaw has a message for potential visitors looking to escape areas heavily impacted by the virus: “This is not a place for a virus vacation.” But that doesn’t mean out-of-towners are unwelcome, he said.
“We’re not saying don’t come to town,” Bradshaw said. “We’re just saying, ‘You’re welcome here, but be respectful and have empathy for those who live here.’”
With a growing number of COVID-19 cases in other Idaho counties, including nearby Twin Falls County, the important thing may not be where visitors to Blaine County are coming from but whether they practice recommended social distancing and hygienic practices when they’re out and about in the Wood River Valley, McCleary said.
“There’s some risk, obviously, from people coming in from out of [state],” she said. “But even within the state of Idaho, and very close to us, we still have areas with cases increasing.”
Both McCleary and Greenberg say they believe future advancements in testing capabilities and research will be crucial in determining the success of the governor’s rebound plan going forward. For now, they’re asking both visitors and residents of the valley to follow the practices outlined in the statewide Stay Healthy Order.
“[Visitors] need to abide by the same guidelines as the locals do,” Greenberg said. “If they do that, I think there’s room for people to come.”